Author Archive: Jen Kinney

Downtown St. Louis Replaces Guides With Guards

St. Louis police (Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr)

For the past 17 years, if you were lost trying to find downtown St. Louis’ famous arch, a guide in a bright yellow shirt may have come to your assistance — and recommended a spot for toasted ravioli to boot. Today, you probably have a smartphone for that. As of this month, if you do find yourself turned around in St. Louis, it’ll no longer be a guide that comes to your rescue, but an off-duty police officer.

With both crime and the perception of crime edging up downtown, the Downtown St. Louis Community Improvement District (CID) nixed the Downtown Guides program in mid-March — and replaced the yellow-shirted troop with security patrols.

Missy Kelley, president and CEO of Downtown STL Inc., which manages the CID, says residents’ safety concerns have grown in recent years — particularly since the 2014 unrest in nearby Ferguson after a black teen, Michael Brown, was killed by a police officer — and they didn’t see the guides as providing security.

“[The guides] were just supposed to be extra eyes and ears on the street so that if they saw something they could alert the police,” says Kelley. “It was to be both a hospitality and security type program, but we were leaning a lot more on hospitality.” The guides were unarmed, and in fact were ordered to back away from security issues and call the police, given their lack of training.

The actual state of crime and safety in St. Louis is a little murky. Kelley says that while crime has not increased dramatically downtown, the perception of safety has changed.

“While downtown, like any other urban core has, has problems with crime, is certainly not the most dangerous part of city, it’s certainly not even close,” she says. But since the city’s police department has about 400 fewer cops in 2017 than in 2000, and 100 positions funded but unfilled, “we’re basically understaffed in downtown, and so as a result of that, the perception of safety is much worse than the actual safety,” says Kelley. “People think it’s a lot more dangerous than it actually is.”

But St. Louis Today’s crime tracker shows that crime downtown has in fact risen 6.26 percent over the past six months, compared to the same period the year before. Nearly 2,300 crimes were reported last year, about 75 percent of them related to property. That makes downtown’s crime rate the highest per capita of the city’s 77 neighborhoods — however, only 806 people lived downtown as of the 2010 census. Tens of thousands more commute to work downtown every day, and nearly 10 million visit annually.

Hence, Downtown STL Inc. wants to battle both the reality and perception. Not doing so could be costly. Personal injury law office Brown and Crouppen announced in February it was considering leaving downtown because of crime, especially after the recent killing of a local rapper. In the past three years, the guides saw calls to their pedestrian escort line nearly double. Under that service, guides walked residents worried about safety from offices to cars. The new security patrols will take over that duty, as well as hospitality ones. But of course, whether police add to a sense of safety or detract from it is a matter of perception too.

Kelley chalks up both the increased crime and concern about it to the “Ferguson effect,” the idea that police are backing off more aggressive enforcement for fear of sparking further backlash, and that criminals feel emboldened by their timidity. Some studies have identified a grain of truth in the idea. But there’s another “Ferguson effect” theory, one that may point to unintended consequences of replacing guides with guards. A study of 911 calls in Milwaukee found that following an incident of police violence there, emergency calls dropped precipitously — particularly in black neighborhoods.

Kelley isn’t concerned that more of a security presence will increase tensions between residents and officers, nor is she worried that having more officers on the street will make people think the problem is worse than it is.

“People already think it’s worse than it is,” she says. “Pretending that there’s not a perception problem or an actual problem isn’t helping anyone.”

She says the patrol officers will be hospitality-minded, not intimidating. Four pairs of officers will patrol from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Not the windows of greatest crime, Kelley notes, but the windows during which the most people are likely to be out on the streets and benefit from an increased perception of security.

Right now, all the roles are being filled by off-duty police officers but Downtown STL Inc. is looking to replace four of them with licensed watchmen, security guards who can patrol in the public right-of-way. Watchmen can’t make arrests and won’t carry weapons, but the police will. Downtown STL Inc. is still looking for a company to supply the watchmen. They’re seeking an agreement that the company must agree to consider any of the 11 guides who lost their jobs for watchmen positions, so long as they are eligible for training.

Watchmen will also take on the role of calling in necessary improvements to infrastructure, a role that guides once filled. The police patrols will address what Kelley calls “quality of life” issues related to homelessness and panhandling.

Analysis of L.A. Neighborhoods Shows Rich-Poor Trust Divide

 (AP Photo/David Kadlubowski)

Buffalo is considering it. Pittsburgh is too. New York, San Francisco, Tallahassee and dozens more municipalities already have it. Particularly in places like Seattle, where rental prices and income inequality are rapidly increasing, inclusionary zoning is seen as a promising but complicated tool for creating more affordable housing by requiring developers to reserve a percentage of new units to be sold or rented below market price. In addition, one study found data showed that, as of 2012, inclusionary zoning was promoting economic integration. But living side by side doesn’t necessarily lead to a meaningful bridging of the income divide.

Authors of a new paper found that when it comes to the rich and poor chatting at the corner bodega or the neighborhood park, even where low-income and high-income families are living in close proximity, they are unlikely to encounter each other in places of worship, laundromats, grocery stores and other informal “activity spaces.” It’s a finding that is as intuitive as it is troubling, calling into question efforts to promote mixed-income communities.​

“The greater the level of inequality in the neighborhood, the greater the likelihood that people are going to sort by socioeconomic status,” says Christopher Browning, an Ohio State University professor and one of the paper’s authors. “When folks move into a mixed-income housing development, they don’t necessarily develop network ties with people of different classes. This is an extension of that: They may not share locations of everyday activities either.”

The study isn’t sweeping: The data came from one source, the Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey, which asked residents where they engaged in daily activities like grocery shopping. Researchers geocoded the answers and then looked at sample pairings of neighbors to see how often they shared space. Pairings of two low-income households were most likely to encounter each other informally, while high-income households were unlikely to encounter any neighbors — regardless of socioeconomic status.

Browning says that’s in part because wealthy people may have greater access to transportation and can more easily make decisions based on preference rather than cost — like choosing to drive to a grocery store with a better selection.

This sorting doesn’t happen equally in all mixed-income neighborhoods, the analysis found. “The greater the level of inequality in the neighborhood, the greater the likelihood that people are going to sort by socioeconomic status,” says Browning, a finding he explains as a function of trust. His paper poses a classic Jane Jacobs-style question: Did greater income diversity increase or decrease neighborhood trust? The Los Angeles survey asked residents “are people in this neighborhood trustworthy.” When Browning and his fellow researchers aggregated those answers into an overall trust score, they found that as inequality grew, distrust did too.

Hence, as inequality increases, low-income neighbors remain likely to share space with one another, but high-income neighbors separate themselves more. Distrust among all parties grows.

“This doesn’t bode well for the kind of spatial integration of gentrifying neighborhoods,” Browning says. Nor does it bode well for a neighborhood’s ability to organize for the collective good. Another upcoming paper that utilizes the same data demonstrates that sharing public space increases neighbors’ willingness to look out for each other, and to intervene on one another’s behalf.

The paper on activity space segregation appeared in the February volume of the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, which focused on the “Spatial Foundations of Inequality.” George Galster, journal editor and Wayne State University professor, says many of the papers highlighted a trend toward increasing segregation by income, especially in schools. He suggests throwing a wrench in that trend with policies like inclusionary zoning.

But as Browning’s research shows, the resulting “integration” may be only superficial. “We’re sort of obsessed with mixed-used neighborhoods, but there’s, I think, a lot of emphasis on the physical environment and land use patterns without enough attention to the actual dynamics of activity in these neighborhoods that these things are trying to produce,” says Browning. He thinks neighborhoods most likely to experience true and lasting integration would have not a mix of very low-income and very high-income residents, but a mixture of low- and middle-income households.

“Is that a good thing? It’s not clear,” he says. “Ideally we’d be able to develop communities where people of all income levels could share public space without having detrimental outcomes come from that.” With the hollowing of the American middle class, it’s also an increasingly unlikely mix. (The paper did not look at social mixing by race.)

Browning admits it’s hard to draw any conclusions from just one study about just one place, but in the 55 neighborhoods in the study, he says he didn’t see evidence that people of vastly different income statuses enjoy shared environments without breeding distrust. Not that he thinks it’s impossible: If neighborhoods could plan in such a way that residents share space over time, says Browning, they may increase their collective efficacy, common willingness to look out for children, and overall network interactions. Indeed, studies have shown that children who grow up in mixed-income neighborhoods do in fact enjoy greater social mobility. Browning says when researchers find neighborhoods like this, we’d do well to learn from them.

The Way We Build Infrastructure Reflects Our Values

Los Angeles’ Expo Line (Photo by Steve and Julie)

In the billions of dollars of necessary infrastructure improvements across the United States, Stephanie Gidigbi sees an opportunity. Planning as usual has left low-income people and communities of color burdened by intersecting health, access and resiliency disparities. Being thoughtful about new projects and new investment offers the chance to do things differently.

“The communities that are impacted by the changes that are happening in our climate are the same ones that are impacted when it comes to health, and of course it’s the same ones that have racial inequities,” says Gidigbi, director of policy, capacity and systems change at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. “We can’t expect that we can continue to build the same thing and get different outcomes.”

That’s the philosophy behind the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge, or SPARCC, an initiative of the NRDC, Enterprise Community Partners, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and the Low Income Investment Fund. The three-year initiative will provide funding, financing and technical assistance to coalitions of organizations working across sectors and issue areas in six U.S. cities to ensure that new infrastructure projects don’t reinforce the patterns of old.

Each participant — Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis and the Bay Area — is already planning an array of large infrastructure investments, funded through ballot-approved tax increases or federal grants. And in each, organizations are already working together to make sure neighborhoods get a say in how that money is spent. SPARCC aims to support the creation and growth of these “collaborative tables,” spaces where nonprofits, grassroots advocates, and the public and private sectors can come together to promote equitable change.

“These investments come and these places will change, and it will either become more inclusive or less inclusive,” says Brian Prater, executive vice president of strategy, development and public affairs at the Low Income Investment Fund, a San Francisco-headquartered community development financial institution. “It became very apparent to us that if you don’t plan for that growth and ensure that justice and equity are central to this conversation, then the traditional patterns of segregation, concentrated poverty and displacement will be repeated.”

In Los Angeles, where black residents have twice the asthma rate of the general population, and residents spend an average of 81 hours a year stuck in traffic and 57 percent of their income on housing and transportation, transit investment is seen as vital, and inseparable from issues of housing affordability and air pollution. So vital, in fact, that in the past eight years voters have approved two half-cent sales tax increases to expand transit and keep it affordable: Measure R in 2008 and Measure M in 2016.

“Even before Measure R happened there was growing recognition among neighborhood organizations and advocates that transit expansion could be a good thing or even a great thing for the region, but at the neighborhood level for low-income communities and communities of color it could be a potentially disruptive force and create the potential to lead to gentrification and displacement,” says Thomas Yee, initiative officer for LA Transit, Housing, Resources and Investment for a Vibrant Economy (LA Thrives), one of the groups leading the SPARCC effort in Los Angeles.

Since the measure passed, the city has only gotten more expensive, particularly along transit lines. But one thing has changed: “What we’re really excited about, we think Metro has really evolved as a partner to think about equity,” says Yee, referring to the county public transportation agency.

LA Thrives and another partner under SPARCC, ACT-LA (Alliance for Community Transit LA), advocated for Measure M, and will now have the opportunity to work with Metro to set priorities for how the money is spent and communities are engaged. Yee says doing so equitably requires looking at the whole region.

“L.A. County is a really big place,” he says. “The transit system touches the whole county.” Metro’s plans include construction sites in 24 surrounding cities. With the support and funding of SPARCC, LA Thrives and ACT-LA plan to expand their network to include advocates in other high-priority, target cities like Inglewood.

Metro is planning to add three new light-rail stations in Inglewood, while the mayor there has thrown his support behind a massive new NFL stadium. “But there’s really an absence of civic infrastructure there to really grapple with the challenges that come from all that displacement,” says Yee.

Gidigbi also sees regional collaboration, and recognition of the suburbanization of poverty, as key to SPARCC’s integrated approach. “We’re learning things in the city, we want to make sure the surrounding communities are being able to benefit from those pieces,” she says.

With SPARCC, LA Thrives and other partner organizations will also have access to capital financing, a critical bargaining chip at a time when cities may find themselves strapped for cash to implement community engagement programs — or even their planned transit expansions. Just during the reporting of this article, the White House released its proposed federal budget, which would slash funding for the Department of Transportation by 13 percent, imperiling projects approved but not yet fully funded under the New and Small Starts programs.

That includes two projects in Los Angeles — the downtown streetcar and phase three expansion of the Purple Line — and one in San Francisco, another SPARCC city. To SPARCC, the proposed budget cuts only lend credence to the fact that change will need to come from the local and regional levels.

It’s a fraught, but vital moment in shaping the future of cities. As Gidigbi notes, many major infrastructure projects were built in the 1960s, an America vastly different in some ways and eerily similar in others. While transit, housing, health and climate might not all seem to fit together at times, Gidigbi says, “they are so critical to ensuring that what we build today truly represents the values that we stand for today.”

Calif. City Tries Shifting Sands Amid Disappearing Beaches

Loyola Marymount University conducts a bird survey at the Santa Monica dune pilot site. (Credit: The Bay Foundation)

Santa Monica’s beaches, famed as the birthplace of the mid-20th-century fitness boom, have been as intentionally sculpted as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pecs at the peak of his beachside bodybuilding career. In 1934, the same year that a New Deal program brought fitness equipment to what would become Muscle Beach, the city of Santa Monica installed an offshore breakwater that captured sediment and dramatically widened those beaches by hundreds of feet.

Today, with sea level rise and erosion threatening to eat away at the sandy expanses and damage city infrastructure, Santa Monica is testing a softer intervention. In a partnership with the nonprofit Bay Foundation, 3 acres of the beach’s north end have been seeded with native California dune plants. If the pilot works as planned, over time hummocks of sand will build up around them, providing natural protection to the parking lots, bath houses and homes inland. By some estimates, sea levels off the California coast could rise by up to 6 feet over the next hundred years, putting this artificially strengthened landscape at risk.

“It’s interesting doing a restoration project on a sandy beach that never was there before,” says Melodie Grubbs, the Bay Foundation’s watershed programs manager. While East Coasters might be accustomed to beach flora and natural slopes of sand, Santa Monica’s beaches are groomed almost daily to keep them flat and free of trash. In addition to evaluating how well the dunes form on their own and how much protection they afford against sea level rise, the pilot, says Grubbs, is also about seeing how an urban community reacts to a project like this.

“I think it’s very important to demonstrate on an urban beach that’s very heavily used that this is compatible with recreation use of the beach,” says Judith Meister, beach manager for the city of Santa Monica. The north end was chosen because of its relatively low traffic, but if the pilot is successful and well-received by residents, more dune plants could be seeded farther down the beach.

Other hardscape solutions exist to protect beaches and inland infrastructure. The city could build more sea walls or jetties, for example, and in some locations that might be a better fit. San Diego, for example, is considering a hybrid sand-and-rock wall. Santa Monica’s more natural approach affords additional benefits for wildlife, but it will also take longer; dunes won’t form for two to three years, and the city doesn’t expect to make a decision regarding expansion for about five.

How Santa Monica hopes dunes will look in two to three years (Renderings by Mia Lehrer + Associates, courtesy The Bay Foundation)

“Southern California beaches are disappearing, so it’s already becoming a real problem that people want to take action on,” says Grubbs. “This is just one of those alternatives that people tend to prefer because it provides a really nice habitat, ecological benefit, and human use.”

Right now the pilot area is fenced off on three sides, open only where it faces the water’s edge. Visitors can walk along a pathway through the space, and they’re not prohibited from entering, just discouraged. After the recent rains, thousands of little seedlings are sprouting in the sand. Once they’re more securely rooted, people should be able to enjoy this habitat without harming it.

Snowy plovers, an endangered species seen in Santa Monica but never before on this stretch of beach, have already been spotted in the pilot zone. Grooming tends to keep them and other wildlife away.

“This is another opportunity to engage the public and understand really that the beach is much more than just a place to come and have fun but there’s a whole life system going on,” says Meister. The city will work with the Bay Foundation to install educational signage, and the nonprofit will work with local students to monitor the site for factors like wildlife use, plant growth, kelp that washes into the space, the movement of sand and the effects of storms.

Grubbs says those who live near the beach and have already experienced flooding during recent storms were an easy sell on the project. Other residents, not accustomed to unmanicured beaches weren’t so sure. One woman, says Grubbs, came into a community meeting prepared to hate the project. When she learned that the pilot would include flowering plants like evening primrose and sand verbena, she asked why it couldn’t be expanded along the whole stretch of beach.

One Austinite Has a Suggestion for Those Outraged Over Uberless SXSW

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Austin is broken. Austin has been thrown back into the Stone Age. Austin is in the midst of an apocalypse and the only thing that can save it is the return — please, as soon as possible — of ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft.

At least, that’s what you might have thought reading Twitter over the weekend, after a rainy Saturday boosted demand for taxis in the Texas capital. Currently hosting the annual South by Southwest conference, Austin saw the departure of Uber and Lyft last May after the City Council moved to more strictly regulate the companies’ ride services. Apps that sprang up in their wake, like Fasten and RideAustin, were overwhelmed Saturday and started to malfunction, leaving riders waiting impatiently — and furiously tweeting their discontent.

The appalled and outraged — pegged to be, by more than one publication, “tech bros” — accused the upstart apps of not doing proper testing, but they saved their greatest ire for the city of Austin itself, partly for not backing down on its regulation demands. “Austin definitely missed its chance to prove that cities are ready to fully-function without Uber or Lyft,” lamented one writer at TechCrunch.

It’s almost as if the SXSW tweeters forgot that public transit exists. As Henry Grabar pointed out at Slate, five years after the launch of Uber, it remains a largely elite service. As of last year, only 15 percent of Americans had ever used a ride-hailing app.

“Honestly, it’s entitled tech bros. It’s hard to feel too bad for them that they’ve come to view Uber as a utility, when it doesn’t need to be, and it wasn’t for years,” says John Laycock, a local resident and member of AURA, an organization that advocates for an inclusive Austin. The group put out a public transit vision for the city the same month Uber and Lyft pulled out last year. It doesn’t include anything about ride-hailing apps, but it does acknowledge that Austin’s current system is lacking. Ridership plummeted 12 percent just last year.

Laycock says that’s partially bad service and partially perception.

“If you’re not in a train you don’t think of yourself as being in good public transportation,” he says. Austin has just one commuter rail line and a bevy of inefficient bus routes. Laycock intentionally chose to live off the rail line, and utilizes a combination of apps to figure out where his bus stops are and when the next vehicle is arriving. A bus trip is just $1.25, but it’s not the fastest or most direct way to get around.

“If you’re used to Uber and have the money to spend on Uber, I can see you not wanting to deal with that,” he says. But he also acknowledges, “the same things that are keeping the tech bros from riding the bus” — a complicated system with lots of transfers, for example — “are the same things keeping local people from riding the bus.”

While the tweeters placed the onus on Fasten and RideAustin to prove they can handle volume, Laycock hopes that by this time next year, Capital Metro will have implemented its plan to retire some winding, low-ridership routes and combine others into more efficient lines with service every 15 minutes. The tech community could even help, he suggests, by developing more user-friendly transit apps. (Many code-savvy “hacktivists” do this in cities across U.S.) But what, then I asked, will the bros complain about next year?

“I’m sure they’d find something,” says Laycock.

Cities Navigate Municipal IDs in the Era of Trump

“Undocumented, unapologetic, unafraid” youth protest in Philadelphia in 2012 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Philadelphia’s immigrant advocacy organizations have been overwhelmed since the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president, but that doesn’t mean they’re ending a long campaign for better identification options for undocumented people. They’re just walking a finer line than ever before.

Municipal IDs promise many immigrants and other groups lacking Social Security cards or driver’s licenses a pathway out of the shadows and into city, banking and health services. But collecting personal information without proper protections can put their safety at risk.

This concern has played out most publicly in New York, where a court recently ruled that the city must retain individuals’ records from the popular IDNYC program. Everyone, not just undocumented immigrants, is encouraged to get an ID — free or discounted access to cultural institutions sweetens the deal — but just to be safe, NYC City Council crafted legislation to allow all personal information to be destroyed at the end of 2016, in case an anti-immigration politician won the White House.

Now, with nearly a million people signed up and Trump making good on his anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric, the city can’t shred that data as planned. A bill introduced in the state senate would go even further, requiring the sanctuary city to turn over information to the Department of Homeland Security.

“We don’t want to find ourselves in that situation,” says Miriam Enriquez, executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. In the City of Brotherly Love, Trump’s inauguration hasn’t put an ongoing push for municipal IDs on hold but, according to Enriquez, it has made officials cautious.

“When we originally talked about this, while data protection was always a concern, that’s something that’s risen to the top of the list, now more than ever,” she says. “We have a much more hostile state government right now against immigrants and refugees than a place like New York.”

Republicans at the state level in Pennsylvania have already introduced legislation that would strip Philadelphia of funding because of its policy of refusing to turn over undocumented residents to federal immigration officials.

“Based on the climate, we want to make sure that any data we collect is protected,” says Enriquez. “This program is by no means halted. We are still just gathering information to see how to move forward.”

Hartford, Connecticut, which plans to roll out its municipal ID program this spring, is trying to protect residents by retaining almost none of their information. In New York, the city kept copies of underlying documents like birth certificates, passports and utility bills, used to prove identity and residence. While these documents aren’t a perfect proxy for immigration status, they can be revealing.

In Hartford by contrast, “if someone was to try and obtain a list of people who had a Hartford municipal ID, you would not be able to tell if that person is an undocumented immigrant or if that person is a local student born at Hartford Hospital, because none of that information is going to be noted anywhere,” says Janice Castle, director of community engagement in the mayor’s office.

Detroit’s recently launched program is also not retaining underlying documents, and everyone’s data will be deleted every two years, when cards expire.

“Since Trump was elected, there’s concern about keeping even the minimum amount of information cities use to run these programs,” says Emily Tucker, senior staff attorney for immigrant rights at the Center for Popular Democracy, which is hosting a conversation on immigrant protections later this month. Tucker says some cities she’s spoken to in the Midwest and South, particularly smaller cities where most people getting the card would presumably be undocumented, are putting off their programs indefinitely.

Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, a Philadelphia councilwoman, wants to push forward. “We were always against data retention,” she says. “We didn’t want to make this a municipal ID [just] for the undocumented.”

One of the surest protections is in numbers. If only undocumented, homeless and returning citizens get municipal IDs, they’re easy to target, even if none of those statuses are noted in their application. That’s why New York has tied its card to cultural institutions, and Oakland’s also functions as a debit card. Philadelphia is exploring both those routes too. If undocumented people don’t feel safe handing over their information, they can’t reap the benefits.

“We talked with our immigrant members about the ID and people are really excited about the possibility because they want to be able to use it at the library, to be able to use it when they go to register their kids at school, something people struggle with a lot,” says Blanca Pacheco, assistant director of the New Sanctuary Movement, an organization on a quest to train 1,000 people in the Philadelphia region to respond quickly to stop immigration raids. “A lot of immigrant members want to volunteer at the schools, to be able to be involved as parents, but they’re not allowed because of lack of documentation, which is a shame.”

She too is concerned about data being used against undocumented people, and thinks the municipal ID would fail to address a critical gap: driving privileges. Just last week, a New Sanctuary Movement member in the process of applying for her U visa — a visa granted to victims of crime; she’d been assaulted at gunpoint — had her car towed for driving without a license. It cost $418 to get it back. Though her car was registered and insured, the run-in with the law, including a citation and day in court, could cost her over $1,000.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, it might have cost much more. “In other places of the state … sometimes not having a driver’s license leads to deportation,” says Pacheco. Since 2006, the New Sanctuary Movement and other organizations have been lobbying the state to allow immigrants to use their ITIN (an identifying number undocumented immigrants use to pay taxes) to get a driver’s license. They were eligible for about a decade until a legislative change shortly after 9/11 revoked that privilege, costing tens of thousands of people their licenses.

“Those thousands of people didn’t stop driving,” says Quiñones-Sánchez. “They put everyone else at risk, because they don’t have a license, they can’t get insurance. … You want to license as many people as possible and insure them. What we’ve done in Pennsylvania is go the reverse.”

Last session, a bill died in the house transportation committee. Now the New Sanctuary Movement is seeking a new champion for the driver’s license legislation.

“With this anti-immigrant sentiment, we are not sure [how it will go],” says Pacheco. “We have heard from a couple of representatives and senators who will support. But we also want to push back and say, if the state is really against this hate behavior with the [Trump] administration, then what are the things that locally states have power to pass in order to protect immigrants and also to make immigrants feel welcome?”

While the driver’s license battle plays out, New Sanctuary Movement is also lobbying Philadelphia to soften its aggressive interpretation of the state’s Live Stop provision. Currently, when a person is caught driving without a license, their car is immediately towed and impounded, though state law only requires that cars be immobilized “in the interest of public safety.” The New Sanctuary Movement wants the city to allow unlicensed drivers to call a licensed driver to come pick up the car instead.

Boston Tries New Approach to Traffic Calming

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

“Data driven” must rank among the most common buzzwords in Vision Zero planning in the U.S. right now. Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., among others, all tout data collection as central in their efforts to reduce traffic collisions and deaths. While cities have traditionally relied on complaints to drive street improvements — a process that tends to favor the privileged and well-connected — data-driven approaches aim to identify and fix the deadliest stretches first. In most cities, these fall disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Thus “data driven” goes hand in hand with that other Vision Zero refrain: equity. But Boston, as part of its 2030 action plan, released this week, is trying get there following a different path. After making data-driven improvements to arterials, the city’s new Slow Streets program asks residential neighborhoods to nominate themselves for traffic-calming initiatives, instead of making those changes based on crash rates alone. If community groups can demonstrate there’s enough support and need, entire zones of 10 to 15 blocks will receive quick, low-cost safety improvements on nearly every street.

Stefanie Seskin, of the Boston Transportation Department, says the goal is not to create a process in which the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, but to speed up timelines and improve neighborhood engagement.

“We’re looking to residents of the city to come together and tell us they’re ready for traffic calming, and have figured out what their concerns are, and want to partner with us to make some real changes to streets,” she says. “It cuts out some of the need for us to do a lot of education and outreach about what traffic calming is because they’ve done it themselves.”

As a result, she expects the improvements to take place in one to two years, rather than five to seven. In addition to signage and pavement markings, traffic-calming interventions might include speed bumps and raised crosswalks, approaches Boston has used infrequently in residential neighborhoods thus far.

In order to apply, neighborhood groups need to show broad support, whether through resident signatures or letters from community organizations, faith-based groups or elected officials. They also need to make a presentation to neighbors about the program and its importance, as a way to ensure dialogue is happening among residents. A number of factors could boost a neighborhood’s eligibility: a high concentration of youth or seniors, proximity to transit and community institutions like rec centers and schools, and a high proportion of crashes.

Over the past year, the Boston Transportation Department has been visiting neighborhood meetings to explain the program, and two pilot neighborhoods have gone through the planning process and will begin construction this year. Applications are open now until March 24; two or three new neighborhoods will be chosen to join the program. So far Seskin says she’s heard from 12 to 15 looking to apply.

When it comes to ensuring the process is equitable, Seskin says, “I want to see what happens with this first round of applications.” She says nearly all residential Boston neighborhoods could be good candidates. “Every neighborhood feels crashes and feels speeding on their streets. I don’t want to discount how people experience their own neighborhood,” she continues. “What we’re doing is listening to that experience and then also applying our technical knowledge.”

Seskin acknowledges vocal, well-organized neighborhoods have a leg up in this process, but she says that’s why the other criteria — like concentration of community institutions and seniors — will also weigh heavily in choosing zones. Seeing which neighborhoods apply this year and which are underrepresented will help drive outreach for next.

And that’s just one data point the city will be collecting. Seskin says the transportation department will also be tracking whether crashes and speeding decrease in the neighborhoods that get improvements. Slow Streets is also just one component of the Go Boston 2030 plan, which was developed through an extensive public outreach campaign and incorporated feedback from over 3,300 residents. The plan aims to improve Boston’s transportation network so that it supports economic development, ensures equity and is prepared to withstand climate change.

Neighborhood Updates Master Plan With Changing Chicago in Mind

The Flat Iron Arts Building, at the intersection of Milwaukee, Damen and North avenues in Chicago (Photo by David Hilowitz via Flickr)

Since at least the 1950s, when a highway construction project displaced thousands of residents, the Chicago neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Bucktown have been shaped by transportation networks. Adjacent neighborhoods are uniquely transit rich, sporting access to the Kennedy Expressway, the Blue Line rapid transit and two regional rail lines. Milwaukee Avenue, which cuts through the heart of Wicker Park, is one of Chicago’s most biked thoroughfares.

Most recently, the 606, an elevated rail line turned bike path and linear park, has been contributing to neighborhood change in an area already experiencing rapid development. So much so that the Wicker Park Bucktown Special Services Area (Chicago’s version of business improvement districts) recently released a new master plan, despite completing its last planning process just seven years ago.

With rents rising, development pressure increasing and a growing demand for multimodal links among the neighborhood’s many transportation assets, WPB’s new plan highlights how much has changed since 2009, both in the neighborhood and in the broader conversation about livable cities.

“Since our last master plan in 2009, I think urban planning in all cities has progressed, to the point where things that were groundbreaking in our 2009 master plan are being implemented in our city and cities all around,” says Brent Norsman, WPB SSA commission chair. He points to the 606, which was a pipe dream when the first plan was published and yet. (It opened to the public in 2015.) The WPB SSA was also pushing for pedestrian plazas and colored street furniture, plans that stood little chance under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who favored black street furniture.

Today, says Norsman, it’s a different story. Chicago has since adopted Vision Zero, installed over 100 miles of protected bike lanes and embraced transit-oriented development. When Norsman recently talked to the city about installing bumpouts and additional crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety, staff had already spoken to aldermen and reported they might be able to make it happen this year.

“That would have been radical just a few years ago,” he says.

The new plan calls for a variety of improvements to the pedestrian and bike landscapes, including a consistent protected bike lane on Milwaukee Avenue, one of the city’s most popular cycle routes. Despite demand, “there’s really not enough room to do everything,” says Scott Goldstein of Teska Associates, a Chicago urban planning and design firm that consulted on the plan. At public meetings, the firm used a scale model of Milwaukee Avenue to let residents take a stab at designing the street themselves, eliminating parking and adding bike lanes as they saw fit.

In three locations throughout the neighborhood, Milwaukee Avenue crosses two other major streets at a diagonal, creating six-corner intersections where transit entrances and retail development are also clustered.

“They’re difficult because they’re obviously high traffic, but we want to create a more balanced approach to all users of the intersection [including pedestrians and cyclists], and carve out more meaningful public space in those areas,” says Norsman. The plan shows a sketch of a redesigned intersection with extended curbs to create sitting areas, make crossing shorter and slow down cars.

That same intersection, at Damen and North avenues, is the heart of Wicker Park’s high-rent retail district. Norsman says an increase in national chains like Toms Shoes has some residents worried about the future of local, independently owned shops, which are experiencing rising rents.

“That’s been a big concern: How do we maintain the eclecticism of our community,” says Norsman. But he says the higher-rent tenants attract foot traffic for all the stores, and that other shops can move to the lower-rent corridors that remain in other parts of the neighborhood. The non-binding plan includes some mechanisms to preserve affordable retail rents — encouraging landlords to give short-term leases to artists, or creating a financing program to attract small businesses for example — but Norsman concedes, “It’s hard to get building owners to not take that high rent that’s staring them in the face.”

Wicker Park has long had a strong market and rising rents. Follow 606 to the west, to the neighborhoods of South Logan Square and Humboldt Park, and the concerns shift from rising commercial rents to rising housing prices.

“This trail really connects the predominantly white neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Bucktown with the predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Humboldt Park and South Logan Square,” says Geoff Smith of the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University. “You start at the far east [in Wicker Park] and go all the way west, it’s almost like a continuum in terms of the changes you might see from a higher income to a lower income spectrum.”

That made the western half of the 606 vulnerable to displacement and gentrification. While single-family housing prices on the eastern half of the 606 rose by 113.4 percent, on the western half they rose by 139.7 percent. According to a recent study by Smith, people living within one-fifth mile of the 606 on the west side are paying a 22.3 percent premium to do so, whereas those on the east side are paying none.

That’s in part because the western half experienced more foreclosures during the housing crisis, and thus most development today is driven by investors who snapped up homes at bargain prices. Smith says that factor and others should have identified South Logan Square and Humboldt Park as neighborhoods vulnerable to rapid gentrification. If they had been, perhaps programs to increase homeownership or invest in affordable housing might have been adopted sooner.

On the east side, in Wicker Park and Bucktown, where housing prices were already much higher, there may still be time to stabilize retail rents. The proposals in the plan are not binding, but in contrast to the 2009 plan, local organizations and aldermen have adopted different parts of the plan to steward. One section includes voluntary design guidelines for new development.

“We think it will make it easier for developers to know in advance what the community wants to see,” says Goldstein, including better public spaces. “That the health of the businesses depends on the pedestrian environment, that really became clear in the process,” he continues.

Proposals in the plan would also better connect different transit modes, from the 606 to the underpass at the Clybourn Metra Station. Just outside the SSA boundaries and providing connections to both downtown and northern suburbs, the station is “a pretty big asset for our neighborhood that is somewhat underutilized,” says Norsman. The plan calls for working with CDOT to add lighting, artwork, better wayfinding, and safer pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.

Use Your Camera Like a City Planning Tool

(All photos by Jen Kinney)

Look around your city. No, really look. Whether you’re in one of the few urban areas losing population or a city that’s growing, where you live is changing: more development, more active transportation, more jobs, or less migration, fewer jobs, more empty lots. All of this can lead to knee-jerk reactions about what’s good or bad for our cities, and the polarization of people with shared interests into YIMBYs and NIMBYs.

In his new book, “Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space,” author, photographer and land use lawyer Chuck Wolfe argues that we might have more nuanced reactions to urban change if we’d all just slow down and take a closer look.

“A lot of this book was inspired by my critical experience over time in the trenches as a lawyer, watching how people respond to land use issues,” he says, particularly in his fast-changing hometown of Seattle.

There, he’s seen conversations about development devolve unnecessarily into battles between opposing camps. When The Seattle Times published a leaked draft of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda in 2015, for example, and journalist Danny Westneat wrote that the city was going to push for more multifamily housing in traditionally single-family neighborhoods, readers interpreted that possibility as a threat to the very fabric of the city. Such a furor was raised that the city ended up having to backtrack on that part of the plan. Despite Seattle’s housing crisis, single-family zoning was spared.

But, Wolfe notes, a closer look at Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods would have shown that in fact many already had some duplexes and triplexes. “If they had perhaps gone out and deconstructed what they were responding to, all sides of the conversation could create more of a common baseline to the conversation at hand,” he says.

Wolfe’s preferred tool for deconstruction is the camera. In Seattle and the other cities he has visited and lived in, Wolfe uses photography to explore how we inhabit urban space and how that space has been shaped over time. “Seeing the Better City” is generously illustrated with his images, but again and again Wolfe emphasizes that it is the process of making our own images that helps us think about cities differently — not looking at the images of others, not reading studies, not looking at renderings.

Thus, he makes a case for the urban diary, an approach anyone can take to see their city anew. For Wolfe, a camera is the best tool for that observation, but he suggests readers might use writing, sketches, audio, tweets or any number of tools for purposeful looking. City planning still relies on an elite vocabulary not everyone can parse. But everyone can make observations about their surroundings.

After our conversation this week, I decided to give Wolfe’s suggestions a try. The idea is to start with pure observation and work toward analysis. Wolfe goes out of his way not to be overly prescriptive, but he makes some suggestions: Focus on one element of the cityscape, like the use of color, the role of nature, or the treatment of corners and setbacks.

I focused on light. I was driving through Philadelphia on a rainy night to see a movie on the south side of the city when I turned a corner and the illuminated art museum came into view. Wolfe’s suggestions popped into mind. I saw the red taillights of the taxi in front of me reflected on the wet pavement, and they led me to the red traffic lights strung out along the thoroughfare all the way to the glowing statue of William Penn atop City Hall. Once I was looking, I saw it everywhere. On the highway, the blue wave of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey, the Hilton Hotel on the horizon lit in bars of red, white and blue, the tall ships outlined in fairy lights and beside them, an apartment building over a pier lit as though trying to disguise itself as a ship too.

Since I was driving, I couldn’t safely take photos or notes, but I made mental snapshots (and a few real snaps at stoplights, sorry, and more once I got home). I don’t normally drive in the city, and feel terribly guilty when I do, so my urban diary also became an exercise in the kind of nuanced observation Wolfe promotes. I’ll admit to often writing off urban highways and their legacy of destruction, but on this night observing the pools and cones of lights on the wet pavement helped me pay attention to the subtleties of the vehicular landscape, the markers that tell me I’m moving in the right direction, the secondary land uses that this infrastructure has created. The movie theater parking, it turned out, was below an elevated stretch of highway.

Not sugarcoating our urban diaries is one of Wolfe’s crucial suggestions. On a whole, Wolfe cautions against unduly negative or nostalgic readings of urban change, but he says, “Sometimes in order to see the better city, we do need to see the worse city and understand it.” At the same time, he reminds urban diarists to be aware of the overly designed, “see this, sense that” landscapes — like photo vantage points — where planners are consciously trying to coax visitors into specific reactions to urban space. The idea is for the diarist to appreciate nuance — and recognize their own bias.

“Things aren’t as simple as these absolutes we argue about,” says Wolfe. Community-engaged design efforts have tried to bring residents’ lived experiences into the planning process, but Wolfe says often design charrettes are “still infused with some value judgments about an optimal form of development” and don’t allow space for people’s more organic observations. He doesn’t care where people end up on the pro- or anti-development spectrum. He just wants them to be able to articulate why they think they’re right. He thinks the urban diary can capture, as Luc Sante wrote, “everything too subjective for professionals to credit.”

I didn’t come to any conclusions after my urban diary experiment. I just paid attention to light and cars and how those factors shaped my experience of moving through the city. But I did notice myself making unexpected connections, and that’s exactly why Wolfe thinks cities should adopt more open-ended processes for receiving citizen feedback. Many already have. As part of a “Photo Friday” citizen engagement effort during Seattle’s waterfront redevelopment, a resident submitted a photo of Cambodian immigrants fishing off the piers. The practice was technically illegal, and the redesign threatened to make it impossible, but the photo inspired planners to make changes that would allow fishing to continue.

So the next time you’re lobbying your city to build a new park or address vacant lots or tear down an urban highway, consider including photographs of how your neighborhood looks now, good and bad. Before you’ve taken that kind of inventory yourself, avoid making assumptions about what the better city should be. As Wolfe writes, “This hypothetical ‘city many want’ is an empty proposition without an image of what such a city might look like.”

When Red Statehouses Overrule Blue City Halls

Cleveland is one of many U.S. cities impacted by state preemption laws. (Photo by Aeroplanepics0112 via Flickr)

It’s no secret that the gulf between the social values of cities and the state governments that control them has been widening a long time. Cities skew Democratic, while in 25 states Republicans control both houses and the governorship. But with a Republican stranglehold over the federal government as well, the battle over preemption laws is heating up. A new report by the National League of Cities tallies which states have passed laws to restrict cities’ autonomy, and looks at how cities might fight back.

“State preemption efforts can lead to a loss of control for cities, and ultimately the control of the citizens that vote in their elected leaders,” says Clarence E. Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities, who characterizes this as a time of transition in the relationship between city leaders and their state-level counterparts.

In recent years, movements to raise the minimum wage, provide paid sick leave, and guarantee protections for trans residents in particular have gained momentum in cities from Seattle to New York to Charlotte, North Carolina. But in the latter city, and many others, state preemption laws have prevented measures adopted by city councils and approved by voters from actually being implemented.

In North Carolina, the hotly contested HB2 not only struck down a local Charlotte ordinance that allowed trans people to use the bathroom of their choice and prohibited the passage of further anti-discrimination ordinances, but it also eliminated cities’ authority to increase the minimum wage over the state minimum. Despite the economic fallout of North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,” 11 states followed suit.

The NLC report, “City Rights in an Era of Preemption: A State-by-State Analysis,” focuses on seven forms of preemption: those that restrict cities’ ability to pass laws regarding the minimum wage, paid leave, anti-discrimination protection, ride-sharing, home-sharing, municipal broadband, and those that place limitations on local tax and expenditure decisions. But those aren’t the only areas in which states are trying to strip cities of control. Preemption laws have also been passed or attempted around plastic bag ordinances, gun control, nutrition, rent control and, recently, funding for sanctuary cities.

(Credit: National League of Cities)

The report notes that preemption has its own vocabulary. Legislation might grant the state “exclusive” or “sole” regulatory authority over a certain issue, or decree that local laws can be no more “stringent” or “restrictive” than those passed by the state. Localities in all but two states — Connecticut and Vermont — are limited by some form of preemption. A whopping 42 states have tax and expenditure limitations of some kind, which restrict local authority to raise taxes, spend revenue or both.

Along with growing anti-sanctuary city legislation, which the report does not examine, legislation blocking minimum wage increases is swiftly on the rise. As the report notes, 2016 was the year of “fight for $15,” but it was also the year of minimum wage preemption. Even as 23 cities and states raised wages, Alabama and North Carolina both passed ordinances preventing increases in 2016, bringing the total number of states with preemption laws to 24.

“In the past, general limitations such as tax and spending limitations seemed to dominate. We’ve noticed, however, that the trend has been shifting toward legislation that is introduced on behalf of a particular industry to exempt them from local authority,” says Kim Winn, executive director of the Virginia Municipal League.

In her state, that’s included Uber and Lyft lobbying to be exempt from taxi regulation, and Airbnb asking for exemption from land use regulation. Across the country, 37 states have some sort of legislation on the ride hailing apps, while three regulate home-sharing. This legislation cuts both ways: Colorado was the first to legalize TNCs statewide, requiring drivers have insurance and undergo background checks, while Virginia attempted to ban Uber and Lyft. Either way, these laws can prevent local governments from regulating the companies as they see fit.

But cities aren’t taking this lying down, and their attempts to fight preemption have often been bolstered by the courts. Matt Zone, NLC president and Cleveland council member, cites a battle over hiring practices in his own city. Several years after Cleveland adopted an ordinance requiring a certain percentage of work hours on large construction projects be performed by local and low-income residents, the state passed legislation barring local hire quotas. A court struck it down in January, saying the state had overstepped its constitutional bounds. “So that was a huge success for local government,” says Zone.

Last June, Miami Beach’s City Commission unanimously voted to increase the minimum wage from the state minimum of $8.05 to $10.31, despite a preemption law. “We know that wages have not kept up with the cost of living, which is felt more acutely in South Florida communities like Miami Beach,” said Mayor Philip Levine. “Our residents and workers are counting on their leaders to stand up for them after seeing Tallahassee continuously roadblock progress. So to the state, I say, see you in court.”

He’s getting his wish: The state of Florida joined business groups in a lawsuit against the city earlier this month.

The NLC report advises cities to pick their preemption battles, and to try to halt the preemption narrative before it starts — the idea that cities are out of control, and states need to reign them in. Winn says her organization focuses its energy on informing legislators, who frequently do not understand how bills will affect cities they do not represent. Brooks Rainwater, director of the Center for City Solutions at NLC and a report co-author, says the uptick in preemption laws is also tied to model legislation being pushed by organizations like ALEC. These pre-written ordinances make it easy for legislation to spread quickly state to state.

Both Democrat- and Republican-controlled states rank among the top 10 for number of preemption laws, but Rainwater says there’s a clear trend in where they tend to take hold. “Certainly we’ve seen this take place where concentrated political power at the state level doesn’t line up with politics at the local level,” he says. Thanks to gerrymandering, that concentration of political power tends to tilt in one direction, and it’s not in the direction of cities. Needless to say, there are no states with Democratic statehouses and predominantly Republican city halls.

Another City Plans Overnight Revamp of Its Entire Bus System

Subject to change: a stop on COTA’s current 7 line (Photo by Sam Howzit, via Flickr)

A few years ago, when the CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) compared maps of Columbus’ original bus system from the 1970s to the system today, he noticed something striking. “Not much had changed in the bus routes, while a lot had changed in the Columbus Ohio region,” says Josh Sikich, COTA’s transit system redesign project manager.

On May 1, Columbus will become the next U.S. city to enact an overnight bus overhaul, a la Houston, Anchorage, Jacksonville and others. Like Houston, as Columbus’ population has grown, the single, central employment district has fractured into a number of employment nodes not currently well-served by public transit. Like Anchorage, routes winding through residential neighborhoods are costing time and money without contributing much to service. (Also like both cities: Jarrett Walker and Associates consulted on the redesign.)

With the route switch-up, the number of high-frequency bus routes will double, buses will run the same schedules seven days a week, and the number of jobs within a quarter mile of a high frequency route will increase by 70 percent — all while reducing the number of buses on the road from about 360 to 314.

“We’re creating a more efficient use of our resources,” says Mike Bradley, COTA’s vice president of planning and service development.

Currently, Columbus’ seven high-frequency routes — on which buses arrive every 15 minutes or less — comprise over 40 percent of total system ridership. Over the years, COTA has bulked up service on those routes to respond to the demand, but they’re still a hub-and-spoke system, requiring riders from outlying neighborhoods to bus downtown in order to reach other outlying neighborhoods.

After the redesign, 15 routes will feature high frequency service, and several will connect outlying neighborhoods directly.

“It will be a huge improvement for a lot of people, not having to come downtown, having this backbone of 15-minutes or better service,” says Sikich. The buildout will increase the number of residents within a quarter mile of a high-frequency route by 90 percent. The number of jobs within walking distance of such a route will increase from about 155,000 to 265,000.

“If you’re a transit planner, the number one thing you can do to increase ridership is through more frequent service,” says Bradley. In the first three to four months, while riders get used to the change, COTA expects ridership to decrease, but they are hoping to see a 10 percent increase by the end of the first two years. If it works, it will reverse a three-year decline. According to the Columbus Dispatch, annual ridership dropped from 19.3 million in 2014 to 18.8 million in 2016.

To speed up the adjustment period, COTA has been engaged in a public education campaign. Informational signs are going up at every stop. Starting six weeks before implementation and running until mid-May, street teams will visit all of the system’s highest ridership stops to talk to people about the changes to their routes one-on-one. Call center staff is being beefed up, and on May 1 itself, COTA staff will be a big presence on the sidewalks.

“We don’t want [riders] to fall in the habit of still going downtown and coming back out, we want them to know in some cases they can cut their trip in half,” says Sikich. The education campaign follows several years of public outreach to get input on the redesign.

Inspired by Houston, Columbus will already have installed new route signage prior to May 1, and will simply send out teams to remove fabric hoods the night of the rollout. “We looked at a bunch of systems and saw the way that pulling the bandage off all at once seemed to work for them,” says Bradley. Several COTA staff went down to Houston to watch their redesign unveiling in action, including Public and Media Relations Manager Lisa Myers.

“Some people were confused, some people are excited,” she says of the rollout. “I think you see the range of emotions, because transit can be such a personal experience for people especially if they’re transit dependent or transit reliant.”

Some residents will need to walk slightly further to reach bus stops after the redesign removes the loops buses sometimes take on residential streets. Eliminating those deviations is part of how COTA will increase coverage while reducing buses on the street. Seven-day-a-week service will also represent a major change: starting May 1, riders will be able to catch the same bus at the same time every day of the week.

With estimates that Central Ohio could grow by an additional 500,000 to 1 million people by 2050, COTA wants to be prepared with a system that leaves room to grow in the future. Myers says supporting economic growth in Polaris, Easton, Grandview Yard and other burgeoning areas is also a priority. Service expansion, which will cost roughly $9.4 million, is partially funded by a sales tax increase approved by voters in November.

Highway or No, Trenton Eyes Waterfront Redevelopment

Trenton’s slogan, emblazoned on the Lower Trenton Bridge (Photo by Glenn Beltz via Flickr)

Just south of Trenton’s famous bridge, which telegraphs the message “Trenton Makes, the World Takes,” is a swath of waterfront property many agree could yield much more for New Jersey’s capital city — if only a pesky little highway could be replaced.

Cut off from the rest of downtown by Route 29, the crescent-moon-shaped tract of land hosts a minor league baseball stadium, a nightclub, an underutilized park and a handful of state agency offices. Employees overwhelmingly drive to the area and, when there’s not a game going on, leave it nearly empty after 5 o’clock.

Last month, a bill that would require those agencies to move downtown and free up their buildings for commercial waterfront development cleared the New Jersey Legislature’s Commerce and Economic Development Committee, a move Assemblyman Reed Gusciora sees as the first step to revitalization. He’s less hopeful that Route 29, long the subject of redesign studies, might be removed anytime soon.

“If you look at urban revitalization efforts around the country, much of it takes place on the waterfront,” he says. “Unfortunately … we have waterfront buildings that are harbored by the Department of Education, the IT department, and they add little benefit to the city landscape.”

He wants to see those agencies remain in Trenton, just move downtown to the Capital District area. The number of state employees in Trenton has decreased by half in recent years — from roughly 40,000 to 20,000 — leaving plenty of office space away from the waterfront.

That move would allow the city to try to attract mixed-use developments to the water’s edge instead. Once a manufacturing and industrial hub — hence the slogan emblazoned on the Lower Trenton Bridge — Trenton’s waterfront hosted steel mills and shipping ports before state departments and sports. The factories closed throughout the first half of the 20th century, and the highway-ification of Route 29 in the 1950s cut off the waterfront from the rest of the city. A 1990s improvement project added a tunnel south of the baseball stadium intended to divert truck traffic off city streets onto Route 29.

But since 9/11, Homeland Security forbids trucks from using it, leaving the $80 million tunnel obsolete save for one feature — it’s topped by a park that few currently use. “It’s really a bridge from the city to the riverbank, but because we don’t develop it, nobody really uses the park,” Gusciora says.

Removing Route 29 might be the key to increasing residents’ and developers’ interest in the area. Studies dating back to at least 1988 have explored replacing the highway with a boulevard, an idea that surges in popularity and interest in tandem with city coffers. According to the Congress for the New Urbanism, which named Route 29 as one of its 2017 “Freeways Without Futures,” replacing the highway with a surface street could open up access to 18 acres of developable land.

Despite a 2005 feasibility study, the concept languished after the 2008 recession. Then last year, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, a metropolitan organization that also covers Philadelphia and Camden, issued a $100,000 grant for the Downtown Trenton Waterfront Reclamation Redevelopment Project to explore the boulevard idea again.

“I’ve yet to see any city, small or large, that hasn’t reaped great benefit by having a waterfront that was locked away by a highway opened up, or an industrial use that was decaying opened up for public use and enjoyment,” says Roland Lewis, executive director of the Waterfront Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on waterways and shorelines in New York and New Jersey. There’s San Francisco, which removed one of its waterfront highways in the 1990s, replacing it with public space. Seattle is in the process of doing the same.

“These cities were created because of the commerce that the waterfronts allowed,” says Lewis. Removing a highway can present challenges to state and regional mobility, but on the whole, he says, “the city gains.”

Still, even local supporters like Gusciora and George Sowa, CEO of economic development group Greater Trenton, don’t expect that transformation to start anytime soon. It’s too expensive, they say, and New Jersey’s Department of Transportation agrees.

“Realigning a highway would be a costly endeavor,” said NJDOT in a statement. “The Department must use its limited resources in the most efficient and effective way possible, with a priority given to ensuring the safety of New Jersey’s roads and bridges and maintaining these assets in a state of good repair.”

So Sowa is putting his energy into courting the development and investment communities, massaging their image of Trenton as a struggling, postindustrial city into one of an affordable, walkable community that might be attractive to young people and seniors. And Gusciora is focusing on moving the state agencies, a step he calls “more realistic” than redesigning Route 29 right now.

“I think the time is right because people are ready to reinvest into cities,” he says. Asked whether developers might be turned off because of the waterfront’s disconnect from the rest of downtown, Gusciora says he thinks they’d see the property’s value. And he hopes that successful waterfront development might encourage the state to kick in funds for the boulevard.

First, the state agencies need to go. Gusciora’s bill will next go before the full assembly, where he expects it to pass.

Temporary Alleyway Art Feeds Chattanooga Park Makeover

Visitors walk through the Garden Grass (Inversions) installation, by Team GFB, in downtown Chattanooga. (Credit: River City Company)

As Chattanooga continues its bid to entice housing developers, residents and employers downtown, and prepares to renovate its primary park later this year, temporary art installations in alleyways are highlighting how public space is a critical piece of that puzzle.

The Passageways project, initiated by economic development nonprofit River City Company and AIA Tennessee, asked five artist-architect-designer teams to turn four underutilized alleyways into inviting, interactive environments.

One alley hosts both a sound installation and a series of sculptures that mimic the movement of the stars. In another, visitors walk below the “Urban Chandelier,” a sparkling curtain of reflective triangles that catches and projects natural light onto the floor and walls; another hosts a gently swaying forest of suspended bamboo.

The most popular installation, Neural Alley, consists of painted wooden blocks like pixels that can be moved around in peg boards on either side of the alley to spell out words or create pictures and designs. Cameras capture the movement every 16 minutes, creating a record of all the iterations.

The Neural Alley installation, by Revenge of the Electric Women (Credit: River City Company)

It’s simple, but interactive and engaging, which is exactly the goal of Passageways, says Amy Donahue, River City Company’s director of marketing and communications. “Space is limited. … How can we create more with it?” she asks.

For many years, as Chattanooga’s downtown housed employers but few residents, public space was not a priority. Revitalization efforts in the 1990s spurred the development of large parks along the city’s waterfront, but “the public space formed really as more tourist related,” says Jenny Park, Chattanooga’s strategic capital planner. “The housing that we’re seeing come online downtown is really shifting what the public space needs are.”

Just 2 percent of Chattanooga’s population lives in the city center, but there’s been a steady increase in development and residents: Between 2013 and the end of 2017, the downtown population is expected to double. Chattanooga’s Innovation District is also drawing new businesses, and spurring a market for dense, walkable housing. A 2014 River City Company plan for spurring City Center development estimated the area could support over 900 residential units — provided other amenities like grocery stores and park spaces were developed to support them.

Now a redesign is in the works for Miller Park, the city’s central park, and Miller Plaza, a private space owned by River City Company right across the street. The two spaces, though adjacent and often used in concert for large events, are separated by a busy roadway, and Miller Park goes underutilized because of its dated design. It’s below street level, a feature intended to give parkgoers respite from traffic, but which serves to cut off the park from the city as well.

The redesign would bring Miller Park up to street grade and use a planted median and continuous paving to link the park and plaza. That would make it easier to block off the street between them when they host joint events, like the free Night Fall concert series River City Company runs every summer Friday. A third nearby public space, Patten Parkway, would also get a makeover with an outdoor cafe, market and seating area.

The Miller Park/Miller Plaza redesign (Credit: City of Chattanooga)

With construction slated to begin this year, Donahue says one goal of the Passageways project was to “get ahead of the renovation of Miller Park and make it habit for people to enjoy public space in City Center, because that’s not necessarily something that happens right now.” The alleys, which are privately owned by the adjacent buildings, play host to formal events like poetry readings and attract informal visitors who just happen to be passing by.

“It’s exciting to have things for people to stumble across as they’re walking. That’s part of the downtown experience,” says Park.

Installed in August in time for the 2016 AIA Tennessee meeting, the alley installations are now in their midlife, and River City Company is trying to figure out what should happen next. The installations were only intended to last a year, but “now the expectation is that those spaces are there and they’re usable,” says Donahue. Come summer, River City Company will decide whether the installations can take the wear and tear of another year outside, or hold another call for artists to replace them. The project may also expand to include more alleys in the area.

“One of the things we wanted to do was change perception,” she says, the same goal behind a River City Company project to install art and technology in 19 vacant City Center storefronts in 2014. The project came to an end because all of those storefronts were eventually leased out. Donahue hopes Passageways sets the stage for future transformations too.

“We’re very excited about what’s going to happen at Miller Park in Chattanooga,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to take years and a million dollars of capital campaigns to create special places in your city.”

How Cities Can Take Vision Zero to the Next Level in 2017

(Photo by Haymarketrebel via Flickr)

Vision Zero shorthand boils down the initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities to three E’s: education, enforcement and engineering. But expanding Vision Zero in the U.S., where low-income communities and communities of color are both more likely to be injured or killed in traffic and to be targeted by law enforcement, requires grappling with other fundamentals.

A new brief from the Prevention Institute lays out a Vision Zero road map rooted in health equity, a framework that calls for identifying and eliminating the underlying causes of traffic fatality inequities. It’s no coincidence that in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color inadequate public investment correlates with disproportionate rates of both traffic collisions and preventable diseases like diabetes.

“To work from a health equity lens you need to look at the root causes,” says Elva Yanez, co-author and director of health equity at the Los Angeles-based Prevention Institute. “Look at the policies, practices and norms that have allowed these disparities to arise in the first place.”

Rather than launching Vision Zero by trying to crack down on individual behaviors through education and enforcement, the authors suggest starting with an honest assessment: How are resources currently distributed among neighborhoods? What land use patterns are contributing to traffic deaths? Who is most impacted by traffic violence? Who are the most valuable potential partners within neighborhoods to work on reduction?

Determining the “who” starts with breaking down the data. “If you can’t say with precision how traffic safety problems or disparities are greater in a specific community, then it’s very difficult to go from there to address interventions,” says Yanez. But in surveying L.A. and other cities’ Vision Zero approaches, the researchers found that in many instances, cities weren’t disaggregating their data to pinpoint which racial, ethnic and economic groups were most affected.

Manal Aboelata, co-author and managing director at the Prevention Institute, says this is a step cities can take wherever they are in their Vision Zero process. Gathering that data might require more collaboration among agencies.

“The approach that Vision Zero should take is a multisector approach,” says Yanez. Transportation departments are crucial to changing street designs and traffic regulations, but nearly every city agency is implicated in the creation and maintenance of the policies and built environments that contribute to traffic inequities. Aboelata says this is another step cities can take anywhere in their process: assessing what factors are making certain corridors and intersections less safe.

Neighborhoods attracting new development are more likely to get routine upgrades to their infrastructure, for example, as developers pay for new sidewalks, crosswalks and other amenities. Neighborhoods without investment don’t benefit from such improvements. Land uses like high-speed arterials and higher concentrations of liquor stores and bars contribute to unsafe driving behaviors, and tend to be clustered in low-income neighborhoods.

“As we’re getting to the origins of the problem, we have the opportunity to solve multiple problems at once,” says co-author Rebekah Kharrazi. The brief recommends engaging community members in the process from the start by having them lead city officials on walk audits. In Los Angeles, the Prevention Institute helped organize three. Aboelata says the tours can be the start of a two-way conversation: Officials can see the neighborhood through residents’ eyes and hear which factors — like fear of violence — impact safety beyond road conditions.

Residents can learn which agencies are responsible for which problems and what solutions are available. They may not be aware, for example, that speed bumps aren’t the only option for calming traffic, that more beautiful features like planters and bulbouts are possible.

Getting this kind of community buy-in is crucial from the start, the authors agree, particularly when it comes to enforcement.

“Because of the history of police discrimination and biased practices [in low-income and majority-minority communities], that’s a challenge that needs to be overcome if one of your E’s is enforcement,” says Yanez.

One way to engage residents early is to work with existing community organizations, and to support them through micro-grants or other funding.

“Although traffic safety is really important, groups working in communities of color might be focused on other more front-burner or pressing issues,” says Aboelata. But they have the trust of the community, the relationships and the historical knowledge that if given resources, they may be able to expand their work to traffic safety.

The authors point to Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles as cities that have made strides toward some of these goals. Seattle, for example, has a strong racial equity framework, and has been proactive in surveying high-crash corridors without waiting for citizen complaints. But just this week, Los Angeles’ Vision Zero Alliance published a letter responding to the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan, calling out familiar shortcomings: no solid community engagement plan, a lack of data transparency and the absence of a commitment to curb racial profiling.

Yanez, Aboelata, and Kharrazi caution that without these factors, Vision Zero is likely to falter. Successful public health campaigns to curb smoking and promote seat belt use relied on changing norms so the public would carry on the mantle once marketing blitzes quieted down.

“When the initiative isn’t there, what you need is people in community still excited about it,” says Aboelata. “The torch needs to be passed from city agencies to community-rooted organizations so this can really carry on until we get to zero.”

What’s Behind Your Airport’s New Nonstop Route

Port Columbus International Airport in Columbus, Ohio (Photo by Sam Howzit via Flickr)

From tourists to business travelers and even new residents, airports are one of the first pieces of urban infrastructure many are likely to encounter in a city. This makes them vital tools for economic development — selling points for companies considering a move to a region, and job generators in their own right.

Yet while corporate subsidies make headlines, the public remains largely unaware of the competition airports undertake to lure airlines to launch flights to hot destinations. That new nonstop route from your city to San Francisco that’s advertised all across the subway? Chances are, the airline didn’t pay for that ad — the airport did, as part of an incentive package to entice the airline to take a risk on a new market.

Megan Ryerson, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has published a series of papers delving into the connection between airports and economic development and urban competition. She says for an airport in an already growing city, offering airlines $75,000 to $1 million in marketing and waived fees to launch a new route may be savvy economic development. But for smaller airports, particularly those sharing metro regions with larger, wealthier cities, Ryerson says that money might be better spent on the amenities that make cities good places to live and visit.

There’s just one problem: Airports aren’t allowed to spend these funds that way.

In the U.S., the vast majority of airports are public entities, owned by the city, county or a regional body like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Airports generate both aeronautical revenue, which includes fees paid by airlines for use of runways and gates, and non-aeronautical revenue such as parking payments, rental car fees, a cut of concessionaires’ profits and more. (This is, incidentally, why Uber and Lyft have been anathema to airports: They don’t pay the fees that taxis do.)

The latter revenue covers the airports’ operating costs. Until the early 1990s, cities that owned their airports also frequently comingled non-aeronautical revenue with the general coffers to pay for urban infrastructure like fire departments. But in the early 1990s, with U.S. airlines struggling, Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration limited use of non-aeronautical revenue to the airport itself. A few years later, after heavy lobbying from the airlines, the FAA decided airports could also use that money to waive landing fees, pay for route marketing and otherwise offer incentives to airlines to launch new nonstop routes.

This can be in both airports’ and airlines’ best interests. Landing fees are determined by the cost of airport operations divided by the number of flights landing there. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, a large facility with a large flight volume, airlines pay 66 cents per 1,000 pounds of aircraft weight. But at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, which has aggressively expanded its facilities without greatly boosting flight volume, airlines pay over $10 per 1,000 pounds of aircraft weight.

“If an airport expands their runways, then they’ve just made the cost go up,” says Ryerson. “So unless they encourage new flights, everybody’s landing fee just went up.” Incentives are one way to attract new flights, so long as they stick around once the subsidy runs out. The FAA only allows airports to waive fees and pay for marketing for up to two years.

Between 2012 and the first quarter of 2015, about 30 U.S. airports spent $171.5 million on incentives programs. Yet according to Ryerson, 40 percent of the routes launched in that time ended when the incentives did. “Forty percent of the routes came in, took the money and left,” she says. “Think of that from an economic development [standpoint]. Forty percent of $171 million — that is a lot of money for an economic development program that yielded very little.”

That’s not to say incentives programs don’t have their place, says Ryerson. Dallas and Miami have been very successful enticing and retaining flights. So has Austin, a fast-growing city that’s attracted businesses like Facebook with multiple headquarters across the country. But San Antonio, right down the road, lost almost all of the routes it offered incentives for in that period, and thus nearly all of the money it spent on them. With the Texas cities so close together, the demand isn’t there for a nonstop flight from San Antonio to Paris if Austin already has it.

“Everybody wants to be a big important global city,” says Ryerson, and cities see big, important, international airports as the way to get there. This can lead to abuse of the incentives system: Instead of trying to attract routes for which demand exists, airports focus on flashy destinations that are promising in theory.

In an ideal scenario, nonstop international flights could entice foreign businesses to open U.S. headquarters, so airports might court service to Hamburg or Vienna. Nonstop domestic flights could also encourage business relocation and attract new residents, and there’s always the local economic development generated by jobs and businesses related to the airport itself.

But Ryerson says in cases like San Antonio and Austin, or San Jose and Oakland, regional airport planning would probably be a better fix: Instead of expanding and using incentives to attract redundant, high-profile flights, nearby airports might work together to spread demand around the region.

“This is a one-size-fits-all policy that is working for the 1 percent of airports,” she says.

One unexpected city where incentives are working as they should? Columbus, Ohio. “I believe that Columbus is Austin seven years ago,” says Ryerson. A growing city, Columbus would likely see air traffic increase naturally without intervention over the next decade, but the incentives are helping to spur it along. Ryerson holds up Columbus as an example of both transparency and intentionality. Whereas Austin was reticent to discuss its program with her, the Port Columbus International Airport (CMH) publishes a handy guide.

That document shows that Columbus’ program is rooted in the data: the number of passengers currently flying between Columbus and any given destination on an indirect route. Airlines become eligible for incentives if they are offering a new direct route to a location frequented by 50 passengers or more per day. Extra incentives kick in when daily passengers exceed 100. Both new airlines to CMH and any airlines willing to provide service to a target market are eligible for the incentives, which could include between $25,000 and $100,000 in in-kind marketing and up to 12 months of waived landing fees, depending on the service. As a result, Columbus’ program has focused on routes to Seattle, San Francisco and Austin, over flashier offerings like London or Tokyo (though international routes are also eligible).

“We don’t put out incentives to carriers or we wouldn’t propose incentives to a market that we didn’t think was viable long-term,” says David Whitaker, CMH’s chief commercial officer. He says in his experience, airlines aren’t shopping around for subsidies. Nearly all of the routes CMH offered incentives for over the past decade-plus have remained, with the exception of Jet Blue, which left after the subsidies ran out for reasons unrelated to the market, and an airline that folded before the incentive period ended. CMH was able to recoup 90 percent of the waived fees in the bankruptcy process.

But Ryerson’s research shows that not every airport is using its incentives well, and that air service isn’t the route to economic development for every city. Before the FAA changed the rules around non-aeronautical revenue, Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that operates Los Angeles International, caught a lot of flak for diverting LAX funds to pay for marketing the city to tourists, and on police, fire, and ambulance services. The lack of transparency and oversight was roundly criticized, but Ryerson wonders whether the intention might not be noble.

“Could cities use this money to be a better version of themselves?” she asks. Airports can currently use their non-aeronautical revenue to fund transit expansions to the airport. What if they could use it on urban mobility more broadly? Or on programs to spur business development within the city? Or on any number of factors that make cities good places to work, visit and live?

Without changes to FAA regulation, none of this is possible. At the very least, Ryerson would like to see airports increase transparency around their incentives programs. “People have no idea,” she says, “and there are millions of dollars at stake.”

Pa. Lawmakers May Strengthen Democracy for Small Cities

Reading, Pennsylvania (Photo by Jack via Flickr)

The first sign I had entered Pennsylvania’s 16th congressional district read “State Game Lands 52, Safe Hunting.” Forest engulfed the roadway, and then gave way to rolling farms dotted with silos and barns, and later, neat Lancaster County subdivisions sharing fences with grazing fields.

In a library in Ephrata, a rural suburb of Lancaster, an older woman told me she didn’t know a thing about her congressional district. A mother and son in the parking lot of a diner down the road said the same. But when I described the boundaries of their district all three agreed: It did seem strange that Reading, a postindustrial city in Berks County, 22 miles up the road, would be lumped in and share a representative in Washington, D.C., with the farmlands and farmers of Lancaster County.

“The differences between what Reading and [the city of] Lancaster need, and what Ephrata and Brunnerville need, that is a little different,” said Ephrata resident Isaac Boots. Inside Gus’s Keystone Family Restaurant, an older gentleman and lifelong conservative shook his head and laughed when I told him that Berks County was in fact split between four districts, and that none of its representatives at the federal level lives in the county. “Local politics ain’t so local anymore,” he said.

Carol Kuniholm, of the League of Women Voters and Fair Districts PA, agrees. She’s been preaching about the dangers of gerrymandering for over a year. Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered districts are notorious for their cartoonish shapes, disregard for existing geopolitical boundaries like county lines, and transparently political aims to create safe Republican and safe Democratic districts.

Across the U.S., states redraw their congressional districts every 10 years, based on new census data. In Pennsylvania, the majority party in the state legislature controls the lines on that map — thus ensuring that party’s dominance until the next redistricting. That’s how District 7 was formed in 2011, a meandering entity that pays no heed to natural boundaries in its quest to create a safe Republican majority. Or take District 16, which largely coheres to Lancaster County lines and then — seemingly arbitrary — sends out tentacles to snag Oxford and Coatesville in the east and Reading in the north.

Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district, among the most gerrymandered in the U.S. (Credit: One Million Scale project)

Pennsylvania’s 16th congressional district. Reading is in green at top right. (Credit: One Million Scale project)

Gerrymandering, charges Judy Schwank, a state senator who represents the city of Reading at the state capital, “dilutes Reading’s ability to gain any kind of political power in terms of representation. No matter who is representing that particular district, they have a much larger portion of population in Lancaster County, which is much more Republican-leaning, which allows them to kind of ignore the needs of Reading itself. And this is a city with quite a few needs. We’re one of the poorest urban areas in the country.” Reading also has the country’s most underfunded school district.

Schwank and other reps in the state capital of Harrisburg are ready to change this process — and if they succeed in making the system fairer, that could be good news for smaller postindustrial Pennsylvania cities like Reading. They’ve introduced bills with bipartisan support that would fix the way the U.S. congressional districts are drawn by establishing an independent citizens commission. (Pennsylvania’s state legislature lines are determined by a political commission.) Eleven citizens — four each from the two major parties and three unaffiliated or independent voters — plus a commission chair would draw districts using current mapping and data software, but without access to information about party affiliation, past voting or where incumbents live. All data fed into their mapping process would be open to the public.

​The maps would be presented in public hearings where residents could propose changes. A supermajority of the commission would be needed for adoption. Aggrieved citizens could challenge the final maps in court, as they can now, but at no point would elected officials get to reject or approve them. Similar measures have been adopted successfully in California and Arizona. Another possible reform proposed in one of the bills would follow the state legislature redistricting method of using a political commission, but it would bind the politicians more strictly to creating compact, contiguous districts.

Though it may be politically dangerous in the short term to advocate for such changes, Kuniholm believes in the long term it’s in politicians’ best interest. She stresses that both parties have used the flawed system to their advantage. It’s designed to yo-yo back and forth: With Pennsylvania’s next redistricting commission likely to be led by Democrats, Republicans might be swayed to support redistricting reform now, before Democrats use the same old weighted system to tip the scales back in their favor.

“This is a bad game and everybody loses,” says Kuniholm.

Districts that don’t conform to communities of interest, she says, are hard to represent. Sprawling districts that spread over mountain ranges and rivers may take hours to cross. And the system puts all of the power in party leadership’s hands: If a district is a safe bet for a Republican, the only real competition is in the primary. That tends to push candidates into more extreme views, allows party leadership to sway results by throwing support behind favored candidates, and opens the door for vicious smear campaigns. It doesn’t help that Pennsylvania has some of the least transparent campaign finance laws in the U.S.

Kuniholm also says that while a direct connection can’t be drawn between poverty and school funding on the one hand and gerrymandering on the other, “historically places that are well represented have thriving economies and populations that flourish.” And places that don’t have good representation? They struggle.

That includes the residents of Reading, where 44 percent live below the poverty line.

Driving up Route 222 from Ephrata as though I were an elected official out to survey my district, I discovered I actually had to hop off the highway and take back roads for a few miles just to stay in the 16th. The first sign I’d entered Reading was a blinking traffic billboard: “Mayor Wally Scott Welcomes You to the City of Positive Change.”

Before the 2016 presidential election, Kuniholm had been told over and over that redistricting reform was too wonky, too complicated — impossible, perhaps. But since then, she has been overwhelmed with support. The week after the inauguration, she gave a presentation to a standing-room-only crowd of over 800 people in a Philadelphia church. The following week, 400 turned out to hear her in Allentown. If a citizens commission were introduced, Schwank says that kind of interest would need to be sustained.